Suicide rates among the youngest and oldest Americans have steadily declined since the late 1980s, U.S. researchers reported on Thursday in a finding that contradicts popular conceptions that rates were rising.

The study suggests that new antidepressant drugs may not raise the risk of suicide after all, the researchers said, but they acknowledge they are mystified by what might be causing the decline, because it is not affecting people aged 25 to 64.

"For 40 years adolescent suicide rates rose," said Dr. Robert McKeown, a professor at the University of South Carolina’s school of public health.

"Then, the rates began to decline in the late 1980s for adults 65 and older and in the early 1990s for adolescents and young adults," he added. "But many people weren’t aware — they kept saying suicides were increasing when it was no longer true."

McKeown’s team looked at suicide statistics gathered by the National Center for Health Statistics and the Census Bureau.

"The adolescent and young adult age group (aged 15 to 24 years) showed a continuously increasing trend in rates until 1994, at which point rates began declining steadily to levels not seen since the early 1970s," they wrote in their report, published in American Journal of Public Health.

Rates Americans from 45 years old to 64 have risen each year from 1999 through 2002, and have remained stable since 1999 for 25-to 44-year-olds.

The reason for any of this was not immediately clear, they said.

  • In 1998, 30,575 Americans took their own lives, an average of 84 each day. That’s almost twice the 17,893 homicides that occurred that year.
  • In 1998, suicide was the eighth leading cause of death in this country. For 10- to 24-year-olds, it was the third leading cause.
     
  • The highest suicide rates of any age group occur among people ages 65 and older. On average, an older adult commits suicide every 90 minutes.
     
  • While females attempt suicide more often than males, males are at least four times as likely to die from suicide. In 1998, males accounted for 80% of all completed suicides in the United States.
     
  • Among youth 15 to 19, boys were five times as likely as girls to commit suicide; among 20- to 24-year-olds, males were seven times as likely as females to commit suicide.
     
  • The number of completed suicides reflects only a small portion of the impact of suicidal behavior. In 1998, an estimated 671,000 visits to U.S. hospital emergency departments were due to self-directed violence.